Rudyard Kipling - British Empire 1815-1914

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Rudyard Kipling

Kipling receives scant attention nowadays
Kipling is one of Britain's greatest literary figures. He virtually invented the short story genre and in Kim he wrote one of the masterpieces of the English language. He won the Nobel prize for literature, was offered a knighthood and was acknowledged for many years as the spokesperson of Empire and indeed an Imperial prophet. Yet when WW1 is commemorated we will hear very little of Kipling and his contribution towards WW1, yet he was a member of the War Propaganda Bureau, he wrote numerous pieces of prose and poetry that were well received, and he was on the Imperial War Graves Commission. Why is his contribution given scant attention? I would suggest one of the reasons is his association with Empire and the way we judge people in the past using today's values, and in particular the way some of his work is regarded as racist. In this essay I will be examining Kipling's views on empire and whether he was a racist,  using his work and private letters to come to a conclusion.


Kipling in India c1888
Working on the 'Civil and Military Gazette'
Kipling’s early years  and some of his best work was written whilst he was living in India or was based on his experiences in India. He arrived in India in 1882 at the age of 16 to begin work on the Civil and Military Gazette (CMG), an English language newspaper produced in Lahore. As a sub-editor on the CMG  his responsibilities included proof reading, writing reports, reading through newspapers from all over the Empire and writing reports of their content, writing notes about forthcoming events like polo games, garden parties, official dinners and dances. He oversaw all but the first two pages of the CMG and supervised the Indian workforce.
The Pioneer is now stored in the Allahabad Library
In 1887 he moved to Allahabad to begin work on the Pioneer, the most important newspaper for the British community. He was now given roving commissions and travelled the country visiting country fairs, the opening of bridges, army parades, talking with people on the way and producing reports of the events he visited as well as fictional tales of Indian and Anglo-Indian life. As a result of these years of travel and writing, Kipling  got to know not only the people of the Raj, (British ruled India) but the people of India, and his writing reflected his travels. His best-selling book Plain Tales from the Hills began as stories produced for the CMG.
Kipling's heroes were the men of the ICS
Kipling's heroes were the men of the Indian Civil Service (ICS) and the rank and file soldiers of the army. The men of the ICS were to him an impressive and hard-working body who devoted their lives to the native population and epitomised what the Empire was all about - the development of colonies and providing them with justice, sanitation and good communications, but above all doing their duty to their country and to themselves.  Much of Kipling's work about the Europeans in India emphasised this sense of duty.
The men of the ICS numbered around 1,000 and were generally from public schools, the breeding ground of the ICS. They had gone through a competitive examination system and then undertaken a two year course at Balliol College, Oxford, where they studied Indian languages and culture. The men were well educated and were masters at producing reports. They were an essential ingredient of the mystique of the Raj and its recreation of an English lifestyle in India considered essential if the British were to continue to maintain control of a country of over 200 million . This lifestyle existed to maintain the mystique of the British and was a manifestation of their perceived superiority which had developed as a result of the technological superiority the British enjoyed.
British soldiers defending the Raj
Soldiers were the heroes of Empire
Kipling got to know many ordinary soldiers. Whilst in Lahore and Allahabad, Kipling met many soldiers and although he got along well with both officers and ranks, he preferred the ordinary soldiers and came to regard them as the real heroes of the Empire. He listened to their stories about their campaigns and incorporated them in his poetry and prose. He spoke fondly of the East Lancs Regiment based in Lahore and  the East Surreys based in Allahabad.

India needed to change
In his travels around India, Kipling came to believe that India needed to change but would not do so whilst the disease and  squalor in cities was the responsibility of local Indian authorities which he believed were lazy, inefficient and incompetent. He believed  that it needed the British to provide the men to bring about improvement.  He often wrote articles in the Pioneer about the dreadful conditions, particularly after an outbreak of cholera or a famine.
Kipling  liked Indians as individuals and got on well with them. He worked and met a huge variety of Indian people including servants, print workers, the men from the bazaars, people he met along the road and even the women from the brothels. He came to have a particular sympathy with the women of India and regarded the treatment of women as a major obstacle to better relations with Indian people. He was particularly critical of  enforced marriage, particularly amongst young women in their low teens, who were often forced to marry men much older than themselves.

In late 1887 Kipling wrote a series of articles for the Pioneer about a young woman called Rukhmabai who refused to live with her husband who she had married at 11 and was given a prison sentence. He  also wrote to support Lady Dufferin's Fund, set up by the Viceroy’s wife to provide medical aid to women. He later wrote 'Song of the Women' as a tribute to the work of Lady Dufferin.
Images of the Raj
A product of the Raj
Kipling was a product of the Raj having been born in India and brought up with servants. 300 million Indian people were ruled by no more than 1000 elite civil servants. Altogether  there were no more than 100,000 Europeans so that most Indians rarely saw a European. The army consisted of 75,000 white soldiers and 150,000 Indians and there were no more than 200,000 local policemen. The Raj could not just be maintained by force. It was done  by the British being able to convince  the native population that they were there for their benefit. The British by their character portrayed themselves as being superior and being there as a progressive force for good - as protectors of the poor and there to provide peace, security and good orderly government. The British considered this state of affairs as being natural and self-evident.
To maintain this idea of the British being a superior race it was important that there was not any fraternisation and inter-racial contact, and so marriage and liaisons were taboo. The Raj depended on the British upholding their cultural codes and if you fraternised with local people, you could be ostracised so criticism of the system was unusual.
Beyond the Pale
There is some evidence in his work though that Kipling did not whole heartedly agree with the Raj for he often wrote about liaisons between people of different castes and class. Beyond the Pale is a story about division, about caste, class and race in which the boundaries are not absolute, but relative. In such stories there is sympathy expressed for those who dared to cross boundaries and there is irony used to indicate his criticism. The crossing of these cultural boundaries had been much more common in the early part of the century but after the Indian Mutiny, distrust between European and Indian grew. For us these cultural codes seem totally wrong but at the end of the 19th, ideas on race were constantly changing. Darwin's 'Descent of Man' had left unresolved the question as to whether races were sub-species of homo sapiens or whether the similarity indicated a common origin. By the 1880s the accepted orthodoxy accepted racial differences and placed the Caucasian race at the top of the tree. Until well in to the Edwardian period discussion of race was vague and inconclusive.
Sympathy for mixed marriage
In Beyond the Pale, a story from Plain Tales from the Hills, Kipling shows enormous sympathy for Bisesa,  a beautiful young Indian woman, and there is implied criticism of a system that can lead to so much tragedy. Bisesa has been widowed very young, and longs for a lover. An Englishman, Trejago, who is knowledgeable about things Indian, wanders into the alley where she sits behind a barred window, and has a flirtatious exchange with her. One thing leads to another, and they secretly become passionate lovers. After an idyllic month he is attentive to an Englishwoman, with no serious intent, but Bisesa hears of it and tells him to go. He is desperate to see her, but the next time she answers his knock at the window, it is only to thrust out the stumps of her amputated hands in the moonlight. From behind her, a knife stabs into Trejago's groin, and the grating is slammed shut. There has been tragedy, and he has lost her. He has paid heavily for stepping beyond the limits of his own people.

In His Chance in Life , also from Plain Tales from the Hills, Kipling gives a fairly sympathetic glance at the very sensitive question of mixed race and uses irony to point out that these cultural codes are relative and not absolute as they were for most British people. Michele D'Cruze is  a lowly railway clerk, of seven eighths Indian and one eighth English blood. His community are very conscious of their European descent, however remote it may be. He wishes to marry, but the lady's mother insists that first he must achieve a much higher salary. Then he has his chance. There is a riot in the small town he has been posted to as a Telegraph Signaller, and - aware of his European blood - he takes command of the situation, and keeps order until the European Assistant Collector arrives. Michele is promoted as a result, and is able to get married.

In his writings about India life Kipling often seems to contradict himself but if we turn to his letters, particularly to his cousin Margaret Burne Jones, we get a truer picture of his views. The themes of duty and the British doing good appear throughout the letters and demonstrate that Kipling had a great affection for Indian people and wanted the British to help them to better themselves. In a world without the UN or worldwide charities, he believed it was the duty of the British Empire to make this improvement happen.

In February 1889 Kipling left India on a journey home that would take him to Burma, China, Japan and the USA. It was on this trip that he began to think about the role of the Empire and could think from a distance about the role that India played within it. This trip was the first of many such trips in which he was to discover the Empire. In 1891 he travelled to the southern white territories. In 1892 on his honeymoon he travelled to the USA, eventually settling down there and visiting Canada and in 1898 he and Carrie visited South Africa, the first of his annual visits there until he visited for the last time in 1908. As Kipling became more worldly and more travelled, his attitude to empire changed
Back in England
Kipling arrived back in Britain in October 1889 and found rooms  in Villiers St just off the Strand. It was a central location near the London of theatres, smart hotels and clubs but also the centre of prostitution, music halls and crime. Within weeks of his arrival he was being feted by aristocrats, editors, writers and reviewers, all of whom had heard of the Indian Railway Library series with its stories taken from the Pioneer.

Villiers St today, with a Blue Plaque indicating where Kipling lived
Close to where Kipling lived was Gatti's Music Hall and he often went there after a day's writing. He enjoyed the new world it offered and the new voices he heard. He began to see himself as the poet of this new world. In 1892 he published  'Barrack Room Ballads' many of which incorporated the voices he heard in Gatti's. There are stories about the soldiers of the Empire: Danny Deevor, Fuzzy Wuzzy and a poem that has received much negative criticism, The Ballad of East and West which has been taken to be about how east cannot meet west but it means the opposite.
The Ballad of East and West
An English officer and an Afghan horse-thief Kamal discover friendship by respecting one another’s courage and chivalry. The ballad tells how, when Kamal the border thief steals a prize bay mare, the Colonel’s son (not named) follows them into enemy territory. When his own horse collapses from exhaustion the Colonel’s son, having lost a pistol to Kamal and being threatened with the prospect of making a meal for the jackals and crows, ‘lightly’ responds by promising vengeance. No lines of Kipling’s have been more freely quoted, and more often misquoted in exactly the opposite sense which Kipling gave them. The first couplet is an echo from the Psalms where the figure of speech is used to express the universality of the divine law in spite of estranging seas; the second couplet is Kipling’s commentary, with the same theme as the psalmist.

Kipling had arrived home to find a country ill at ease with itself. It was a country that was beginning to question its position in the world as a result of losing its predominant position in the world, and being challenged by emerging new countries like Germany and the USA as well as old rivals like France. The conditions of the armed forces, our isolation and how to strengthen the Empire were all being hotly debated.

Britain was a country built on trade, and trade dominated our economy to a far greater extent than our economic rivals. 75%  of her cereals and 40% of her meat were imported, more than any other country.  To pay for these imports Britain had to export, and various parts of the country were wholly dependent on exports. Yet Britain had a negative balance of trade and had to make it up with a positive income from invisibles and investments.
HMA Medea, 1888
The Royal Navy had the lowest level of efficiency since the c18th
To protect these trade routes, Britain had to have control of the seas otherwise a rival could starve us to death but in the 1880s the Royal Navy was in a highly unsatisfactory condition. Admiral Bacon had identified 1888 as marking the lowest level of efficiency that the Royal Navy had known since the c18th, and in the Pall Mall Gazette the journalist W T Stead questioned the strength and war readiness of the navy. The threat from abroad, the strength of the navy, free trade and the role of the Empire dominated political debates over the next 15 years.
There was a particular group who advocated stronger Empire and this resulted in debates about fiscal union, the development of the new territories  and whether there should be a  federal Empire linked by an Imperial Parliament. During the 1890s, debates about the Empire dominated politics in a way they had not done previously. The Empire was increasingly seen as the means by which Britain could maintain her dominance of the world at a time when that dominance was being challenged.
Crossing the boundary
During the 1890s, Kipling continued to write on his usual themes: Duty and service, native life and the difficulties faced by soldiers and men of the Indian Civil Service. In 1891 he published 'Life's Handicap' and in it a sweet but tragic tale of crossing the cultural boundary in India , Without Benefit of Clergy. In this story John Holden leads a double life. To his colleagues in the civil service he is a bachelor, living in spartan bachelor quarters, and sometimes neglecting his work. But he has set up a young Muslim girl, Ameera, in a little house on the edge of the old city. She is the love of his life, and he of hers. They are idyllically happy together, and when she gives birth to a baby boy, Tota, their happiness is complete. When Tota dies of fever, they are distraught. Then Ameera is stricken with cholera and dies in Holden's arms. He is left desolate, and the house is soon pulled down. The idyll is over as if it had never been.

As well as continuing to write about his experiences in India, Kipling was writing about what he saw as a lack of interest in England in the Empire. The English Flag, published in 1891, is the first of his Imperial warnings to the British people. From this time on he becomes more and more involved with political issues and becomes more and more a preacher or a prophet as he was called. Some would say that the more he involved himself in politics, the less creative he was.
Painted by Philip Burne-Jones
In 1892 Kipling married  Carrie Balestier and they went to the USA to live. The same year he began on his greatest work, Kim and in 1893 he wrote The Bridge Builders which is about the familiar theme of duty but also makes the point that the native, Peroo, who is the most capable of the characters in the story will soon be able to build a bridge of his own. Is this Kipling saying that the Indian people will soon be able to take more responsibility for their own development? The bridge, thought be based on the Sutlej Bridge in the Punjab, is nearing completion when it is threatened by a major flood. After taking all possible precautions to save his bridge, the Chief Engineer, Findlayson, is swept down the river at night in a small boat, onto an island, with his Lascar foreman Peroo, who gives him opium to stave off the cold. Under the influence of the drug, he has a vision of the gods of India. They do not care for change in the old order of things, and so protest against the bridging of the river. The bridge stands, despite the flood, but in the broad sweep of human history, perhaps this is not such a deep loss to the old gods, who will always be there to claim the allegiance of men and women in different ways, whatever material changes there may be. While people dream, the gods will still be there.

Kipling in his office at The Elms, as painted by Philip Burne-Jones
In 1896 Kipling and his family returned to Britain and it was while the family were living in Torquay that Carrie and Kipling met two men who were strong advocates of a stronger Imperial policy and who were to become firm friends over the years: Alfred Milner and Cecil Rhodes. Milner considered himself a race patriot whilst Rhodes had said, "I contend we are the first race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race".

Developing views on the Empire
In 1896 The Seven Seas was published, a collection of poetry which shows how his views on empire were evolving. The theme underlying much of the collection, is that the English are the Chosen People under the Lord, so long as they obey the Law. This theme is stated on the very first page in  The Song of the English. This is one of Kipling’s earliest verses specifically setting out his vision of the British Empire which now centred on the white settler colonies and the common heritage of the English speaking peoples. Kipling was now writing about an Empire in which Britain stood at the centre binding all parts in a bond of common motherhood.
By the summer of 1897 the family were living at North End House, Rottingdean and were living there at the time of Victoria's Jubilee in June when London was full of pomp, and swagger as 50,000 troops from all over the Empire took part in what became a celebration of Empire.  The main events were a naval review of 165 ships at Spithead and a procession in London. Kipling himself did not attend the day of the Jubilee Procession but he did attend the naval review soon after. He was so taken by the scene that he decided to write Recessional almost as an afterword. Before this he had had no intention of writing a Jubilee poem. The poem Kipling found himself moved to write was at odds with the popular mood: the poem not only cautions against over confidence and popular patriotism, it reminds the nation of its duty to the Empire and how far flung it is. He was now not just the Imperial Laureate but the Imperial Prophet, indeed Rider Haggard referred to Kipling as 'the watchman of the Empire'.
The Elms, where the Kipling family lived from September 1897
At the time he was writing Recessional, Kipling had begun to write another poem that would be about Empire and duty and which would cause, and still does cause, huge controversy for its extreme racist language. The poem White Man's Burden was  published in the USA in February 1899 and came out the very day that an uprising broke out in the recently acquired Philippines territory. Kipling was returning to his central Imperial theme of duty, but this time telling the Americans what their duty was. Although the choice of words is tactless, white clearly refers to civilisation and character and not the colour of skin. The 'White Men' are those who conduct themselves within the law for the good of others. Even so, the poem is profoundly racist in content- the Filipinos and by implication many other non-European natives in the world are wilder, sullen, slothful and heathen. The message Kipling is giving the Americans is the same as he gave for British rule in India: after rulers have taken possession it is their duty to take care of the sick and dedicate their lives and even die for the sake of native peoples. The message is paternalistic and idealistic. The language is harsh.
In writing White Man's Burden, Kipling was fully supported by the establishment and the British public. The British believed that as a result of their industrial and technological supremacy throughout the c19th, they were the chosen race and Kipling reflects this in this poem which is reminding the USA of what is the duty of an Imperial power.
Was he a racist? The society of which he was a part was considered racist in its language and attitudes by us today but should he be judged by later generations? Society then had a different concept of race and indeed ideas on race were vague and inconclusive. These were times when there were constant debates about the nature of race, following the publication of Darwin's 'Descent of Man' in 1871 and Kipling's views concord with the prevailing views of the time. His views on Empire though remained constant and when the nation seemed to fall out of love with Empire, he remained committed to what became outmoded ideas.

In 1896 Kipling and his family returned to Britain and it was while the family were living in Torquay that Carrie and Kipling met two men who were strong advocates of a stronger Imperial policy and who were to become firm friends over the years: Alfred Milner and Cecil Rhodes. Milner considered himself a race patriot whilst Rhodes had said, "I contend we are the first race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race".
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